Vietnam, day five: the purple forbidden city & the dmz

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Wednesday, May 7th 2014:

6:30AM.  I’m contorted in my bunk on the train as it slowly rocks hard to the left, then to the right.  Again, I’m the first awake.  My legs knock over a half-empty can of Pringles as they stretch out as far as they’ll go.  I try to sit up, my filthy socks push into the luggage stowed on the shelf at the edge of the bunk.  I reach over and pull open the curtain.  Staring out the window, I see green hills and the countryside rolling past, a silent film never to be replayed.  We’re a few hours north of the DMZ.  I hear a woman yelling in Vietnamese rolling a beverage cart past the door, Elaine wakes up and orders four cups of instant coffee with condensed milk.  I find my footing on the ladder and jump down.  Everyone wipes the sleep away from their eyes, we stomach the coffee and eat slightly stale croissants.  Good Morning!

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Three more hours till we reach the station in Hue.  I went down the hall to use the toilet, just a hole in the train floor with a bar to grab onto.  There is a “western style” toilet available in the next car, but I’m fine with anything today.  Back to my bunk.  I read two chapters in my book and pass out, so tired, the sleeping plank and the dirty pillow feel like fine Egyptian cotton.  Wake up and collect your bags.  Welcome to Hue, the former capital, the Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty.

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11:00AM.  I get off the train and get on the bus straight to the Gold Hotel, “the most impressive four star hotel in Hue City”.  I went up to my room on the tenth floor, threw down my bags, washed my face, back down the elevator, back in it, just keep going.  Hue seems like it will be a cool city to spend a couple days in, definitely quieter than Hanoi.  I walk past a soccer stadium painted with the Olympic Rings, some sort of wishful thinking for their future.  Down the street and around the corner I ran into Kevin and Frankie at a sidewalk cafe, they had just ordered, another bowl of pho bo for me and a Huda beer.  Every town in Vietnam has their own local brew, it’s all Huda in Hue.

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We met up in the lobby in the late afternoon for a quick bus ride to Hue Citadel and The Imperial City.  It’s best to see places like this early in the morning before anyone arrives.  By this time of day buses were already clogging the parking lot, sprawling tour groups being herded along, impossible to get a clear photograph of anything.  It was also unbearably hot, my clean t-shirt soaked through with sweat after being there for only ten minutes.  I won’t go on about it.  It’s a huge sprawling complex, much bigger than it looks from the outside, all very beautiful.  I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it.  You don’t need me to tell you how amazing the wonders of the world are, they’re known as wonders because they are, UNESCO has you covered.  After a few hours we walked back to the bus as the rain started to come down, passing a display of captured American planes and tanks on the way.

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8:00PM.  The whole group took a walk to La Carambole for dinner, classic French and Vietnamese cuisine.  Fresh spring rolls (not the best), grilled pork and rice.  It was Josephine’s birthday so after we ate Lam, our guide, brought out a cake, her name spelled hilariously wrong in frosting, and we all sang Happy Birthday.  Two cups of strong coffee.  Everyone already a bit drunk, really fun dinner.

After the long process of everyone paying seperate tabs we walked over to DMZ Bar to continue the birthday festivities.  It’s the epitome of a classic backpacker bar.  Cheap cocktails in giant plastic cups, loud pop music, the scrawls of past travelers covering every inch of the walls and the dirty ceiling.  Not the kind of bar I would normally want to spend time in, but everyone was there and it was great.  Things started quiet enough, everyone sipping beers and talking.  A bit later Cliff and Marcella, a couple from Scotland with the most musical of accents, livened things up with an interpetive dance to The Proclaimer’s “I Would Walk 500 Miles”, the Scottish national anthem.  Pool was played and more drinks were poured.  We stumbled back to the hotel around midnight taking a few wrong turns here and there.  A perfect ending to not my favorite day.

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